When I meet children in care, I am constantly struck by their strength, talents and resilience. Often these are vulnerable children who have had to cope with incredibly difficult situations alone. Perhaps because of this, they often appear to be older than their years.
What can easily be forgotten when meeting these children, particularly the older teens among them, is that they are just that – children. However independent they might seem, these are teenagers just like any others, who need care and attention from adults, if their family are unable to provide it.
Unfortunately, the way our care system is organised does not fully reflect this fact. Some children in care, particularly older teens who are particularly vulnerable, are not placed with foster carers, or in a children’s home – they end up in what is known as “unregulated accommodation”. This is independent or semi-independent accommodation with limited support, and is not regulated by the quality inspectorate. It might be a flat, it might be a hostel or a bedsit. Even worse, in some cases it could be a caravan, a tent or a barge. What is common to all types of unregulated accommodation is that the vulnerable children placed there are not entitled to “care”, where children are closely supervised around the clock, but to “support”. “Support” might mean a check in with staff to discuss education or employment opportunities, and limited help with practical things including money management. This effectively means that children supposedly in care are being left to fend for themselves, with very limited support from keyworkers – perhaps 5 hours or so each week, or less.
This report shows that 1 in 8 children in care spent some time in an unregulated placement in 2018-19. The number is increasing – a result of a lack of capacity in children’s homes and in some cases an outdated belief that children aged just 16 should be ready to become independent.
Concerned for the safety and wellbeing of these children, I decided to shine a light on their experiences – to hear from these children themselves about what it is like to live in unregulated accommodation, and to examine what needs to change to provide these vulnerable children the protection, care and support they need.